A little sampler

Welcome to my FREE READS page. Here you will have the opportunity to read the Short Stories created by me recently, for specific events and there's also a taster from Chapter One of my published novels.

Enjoy...

There's a tinge of nostalgia in this short story set in Glasgow, Scotland.
(written December 2014)

Not so… great expectations

Friday, 23rd December, 1960

Sometimes it was really difficult to go home. Even harder than leaving to go to school in the morning.

‘Enjoy your Monday off school next week and remember what Christmas Day is all about.” Mrs Locky never wasted unnecessary breath when the class was all lined up and ready to go home.

At precisely four o’clock, on the ring of the huge brass hand bell, Wee Missy forged her way out through the throngs as she exited Broadholm Primary School Annexe where there were a couple of overspill classrooms. Her class was one of the unfortunate ones in that it was housed in a decrepit and ancient old building, the school roll being too large for all of the pupils to be housed in the new school building. However, there was nothing to be done but suffer the situation for a whole school year.

‘In the bleak mid-winter…’ The words of the Christmas Carol they’d sung that afternoon refused to go away as Wee Missy said a fast farewell to some of her classmates. She felt utterly bleak about it but she couldn’t avoid going home. Sunday was Christmas Day but she knew that it wasn’t going to be a cheerful one for her. The events of last week were going to catch up with her come Christmas Day. She stifled the tears as she waved goodbye to her best friend June.

She’d been too ashamed to share her secret with anyone but keeping silent about it was so awful as well.

‘Frosty winds made moan…’ It was far too glacial to hang about as she scurried further into her scarf and tucked down her chin, the sky a dull leaden grey that heralded more snow.

‘Earth stood hard as iron…’ Her present classroom only had the narrowest casement window imaginable with two bare electric bulbs dangling on a long electric cable from the ceiling for illumination. She coped well enough with the miserable light but the damp smell of mouldy wood seeped right up her nose and filled her head to the point where she eventually forgot about it every day. The lack of heating was a much worse problem. There were a few clanking radiators in the room, but it was only the one right beside the teacher’s desk that blasted out any heat and she wasn’t ever going to be naughty enough to share that space.

Thank goodness, that Mrs. Locky didn’t know what she’d done or she’d be at the front of the class for the rest of the school session!

She tugged her thick black blazer lapels up under her tied over scarf to stop the wind whistling into the tiny space at her parched throat that was full of dry tears. Her school blazer was the only thing she had to wrap around her legs and toes to warm them up during lessons and keep out the freezing draughts. Good thing it was made of wool except it scratched her bare legs, her short socks leaving a lot of cold leg to be warmed below her grey pleated skirt that just reached her knees. Of course, the heating problem near Christmas time wasn’t only in her school annexe: her own house was sometimes just as cold when she arrived home.

‘Water like a stone…’ The Christmas carol, written by someone famous called Christina Rossetti - according to her teacher - repeated itself in her head as she purposely slid down the icy pavement, some kind children having created the perfect glassy walkway on the hardened icy snow that had been intermittently falling since the previous Wednesday.

‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow…’ Always a dreamer. As she speed walked past the proper new Broadholm Primary School Building, the janitor having cleared a small space outside the school gates, she imagined herself back in there the following Christmas.

‘In the bleak mid-winter, Long ago.’ Only built a few years ago, the main school had really good radiators that made hardly any noise at all. She was sure she’d be back there in the warmth the next year because it was only a couple of classes who had to use the annexe. When the other new Primary school was built, in a different part of her newly built housing estate in Glasgow, nobody would ever need to use the annexe again.

Next Christmas would definitely be very different because she vowed she would make sure that she wouldn’t ever feel so bad about going home again.

‘Enough for Him, whom cherubim, Worship night and day…’ The teacher had explained all the difficult words but some of the old fashioned Victorian Christmas Carol was still hard to understand so she skipped bits, in her head, as she wended her way home.

Being the Primary Five exile class was also hard to understand. For her and her classmates, there was no playing outside at break times in the tarmac playground areas that wrapped around the big rectangular senior school block of the new school. The boys kicked a ball about on one side and called it their football park. The girls strung themselves out and played ball games at the gable wall. A tennis, or bouncy rubber, ball in each hand they sang songs like “I’m Shirley Temple and I’ve got curly hair, I’m Betty Grable and I’ve got legs up to here…” Sometimes she didn’t remember all the words of the songs but she just made them up to fit the tune, anyway. Or the girls played with their skipping ropes and sang other songs as the two children holding the ends of the double ropes ‘cawed’ in new kids to jump up and avoid snagging the circling ropes. The new school was also great because it had lots of wall to do hand stands up against it. There were empty bits of tarmac where they could play hopscotch with chalk drawn ‘beds’ using an old shoe polish tin filled with sand for a peever that they nudged along with a foot as they skipped from one chalk-drawn square to another. When the grassy areas around the school weren’t too muddy, or full of piled up snow, they sometimes played a game of rounders, as well.

The annexe didn’t have a proper playground at all. There were only small stone chips around the building and you slipped on them too easily. Of course, the boys still tried to play football and got in the girls’ way as they stood in huddles nattering to each other.

‘A breastful of milk, And a mangerful of hay..’ The school dinners were better in the new school as well since they were cooked in the fancy new school kitchens and served hot to the tables in the dining area. It was a bit strange calling them school ‘dinners’ because they were served around midday, but Wee Missy didn’t care what they called them- she was lucky because she always had two hot meals every school day. One she ate at school and the other at home because her dad only ate a sandwich around midday and needed a hot meal in the evening.

‘Enough for Him, whom angels Fall down before, The ox and ass and camel Which adore…’ In the Primary Five annexe, they had to sit their school lunch plates on their cleared desks and that was tricky because the slope of the desktop meant you had to keep the plate steady while still using your knife and fork. The food served from huge metal canisters and metal boxes was already cooling down by the time it was dished out- even though the distance to the annexe wasn’t all that far. She hated her dinner getting cold because the two-course school dinners were fantastic to eat, much better than her mum’s cooking. Wee Missy loved all the food at school, her especial favourite dessert being caramel flan and custard.  

The only thing on the school menu that made her gag was the kidney in the steak and kidney pudding but she’d learned to force it down. You had to eat everything on the plate or suffer the consequences of Mrs. Locky’s wrath because she wanted no scrap food to deal with! Wee Missy even relished the tapioca, the ‘frogspawn’ that most of her friends refused to put past their lips. For them, it was just as well that there was generally more than one desert choice because nearly everyone avoided the tapioca and jam. For Wee Missy that was great, because she always got an overflowing plate of tapioca, and sometimes even seconds as well.   

‘Angels and archangels May have gathered there…’ Having passed by all the twinkling classroom lights, darkness swiftly descending now, she thought of another thing she looked forward to next Christmas. The lovely new light wooden desks in the main building were absolutely perfect to sit at. She could lift the lid and store her pencil case inside, with loads of room left for her biggest library book, and her hat, gloves and even her scarf.

Oh, no! The thought of her library books made her feel really guilty again. Why on earth had she done such a stupid thing?

She looked despairingly up at the tenement blocks of houses as she by passed them, some of which had twinkling Christmas trees in the windows. Her own tree wouldn’t go up till that night or maybe tomorrow if her mum was too tired. Her dad had already checked the fairy lights and had replaced the bulbs that weren’t working properly so they were ready and waiting for the tree box to be opened. She looked up again at the last ‘close’ of houses at the end of the street. The Christmas lights were lovely against the darkened brickwork of the buildings She’d bet there were lots of excited children living in those houses who couldn’t wait for Santa to come and give them unexpected presents.

Those good children – unlike she was.

Deliberately setting aside her dismal thoughts, she backtracked to visualising her classroom. Presently, all she had was a scratched and ancient two pupil desk - the kind which was only a top with two holes cut out for ink bottles to sit in. There was nowhere to stash away anything underneath. That meant her woolly hat and other things had to be stored at her wet feet and they never dried out properly. 

The only good thing about the double desk situation in the old annexe was that the combination of kids in the back row changed according to the results of the weekly tests, so she regularly had a new neighbour.

‘Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air..’ Her teacher read out the results and efficiently reorganised the pecking order in the class room after lunch on Friday afternoon. Wee Missy was always in the back row, one of the top ten of the class and well away from the teacher’s hugely long blackboard pointer that slammed down on those idle fingers in the front rows. Her teacher liked to keep the naughty boys and girls close by her.

But she was just as naughty as them!

As she turned into Kinclaven Avenue, she watched one of her front row classmates head down the hill to her house in Southdeen Road. Wee Missy’s mother would have a fit if she was ever sitting next to that poor girl again, the girl whose parents had to be a lot poorer than hers were because Ellen was a bit smelly and was constantly lice and nit ridden.

‘But only His mother, In her maiden bliss, Worshipped the Beloved, With a kiss.’ Earlier in the school session, Wee Missy had been sent to the front of the class for talking during the lesson. Only one afternoon of sitting beside Ellen and she’d gone scratching home with more than her shame. Her mother had scrubbed the black Derbac soap into her scalp even more ferociously than usual and used the bone fine-tooth comb so hard that she’d almost gone bald. She never ever wanted nits again. The kids at the back of the class were nit and lice free - as far as she could tell - and she wanted to be sure she stayed that way forever.

She occasionally stamped at the razed frozen ice in the puddles – proof that someone else had nipped along the route home even faster than she was covering it. The mile and a half hike from school to her home was unexciting except when she stopped at the Kinclaven play park, but even with gloves on it was cold enough to freeze her fingers to the metal chains on the swings in seconds and she was neither that daft nor that bored to attempt such an idiotic diversion close to Christmas. Her school blazer and home-knitted grey hat, scarf, and gloves weren’t enough to keep Jack Frost and his many icy friends from biting her all over- just like the wooden seat would be permanently stuck to her bottom if she sat on it. She needed to get to her house as quick as possible to be out of the frozen wasteland around her but she also dreaded it. The really big problem that had been making her sick for days now would be worse when she stepped in her front door.

Feeling guilty was so horrible.

‘What can I give Him, Poor as I am?’ As she skidded her way down another pavement slide, she had to admit that exhaling puffy white clouds was actually quite funny…till it seemed to freeze the hairs in her nostrils. She’d read about how her nose worked quite recently in an encyclopaedia that her much older cousin had given to her. She preferred the Enid Blyton books, and even the Biggles Adventures that her cousin John had no use for any more, but when she’d no new stories to read she propped up the encyclopaedia behind her pillow and read that. It had some pictures and diagrams in it, but she’d have liked even more since some of the information was quite difficult to understand, though she knew it was intended for children.  

‘If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb…’ She rewrapped her scarf right up over her nose and smothered the next lines. She didn’t want to think about them at all.

‘If I were a wise man, I would do my part…’ She hadn’t been wise at all. Not at all. And that was why going home was so difficult.

‘Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.’ Her mother had done that but she’d messed it all up.

As she hurried past the Church of Scotland, other Christmas carols that Mrs Locky had made her practise in class replayed in her head like her dad’s scratched vinyl records.

‘Hark! the herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Her Nana would say that she had sinned something terrible because of what she’d done last week. Now she felt really disgusted but she only had herself to blame for that.

‘Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies, with the angelic host proclaim...’ Even though it was the last school day before Christmas, there hadn’t been much joy in class. It hadn’t been much different from any other Friday except that the carol singing had been for a whole hour rather than the usual Friday half hour hymn singing. The teachers at school never talked about Santa coming down the chimney, or about going to visit him in his grotto in Lewis’ shop in Glasgow City Centre and there was never any mention of anyone ever going to the pantomime at the Alhambra or the Pavilion Theatres either. Christmas tree talk only went on in the playground. Usual lessons went on in the classroom.

Everybody knew Mrs. Locky wasn’t really her teacher’s name but most of the kids in her class couldn’t spell Lachowski. Wee Missy liked Mrs. Locky most of the time but although her teacher might look round and cuddly, the woman could wield her belt as well as the headmaster if anyone got less than nine correct out of ten in the Friday Spelling Test. She’d tasted Mrs. Locky’s tawse a time or two too many at the beginning of Primary Five, but it had been an effective salutary lesson. Rote learning her spelling to perfection was a challenge she never failed at now. Lachowski would never be spelled wrongly either. Her times tables were faultless as well, though she still had a lot of work to do to get the other bits as easy to reel off. To get to twenty-two yards is equal to one chain wasn’t so bad  but the next things about furlongs and miles were harder to remember.

‘Silent night, holy night…’ Wee Missy’s absolute all time favourite was reading. She loved all the reading that was done in class - even the Road Safety advice that was on the back of the school jotters that Glasgow Corporation provided - but she liked it even better when she zoomed home to read the books she’d borrowed from the public library and her weekly batch of comics. Her dad liked to read as well, which was brilliant because every Tuesday evening they walked the two miles to the local Public Library to change their books and walked even faster on the return trip. On those occasions, her feet felt like they barely hit the pavement because her dad was a really fast walker. He’d been a member of a harriers club as a younger man and he did such a fast walk/run that she had to jog to keep up with him on her much shorter legs. It was just as well that he usually carried her books along with his own in his old army knapsack that bounced against his back when they hurried home.

The thought of reaching home to read had her skipping up the hill on Tallant Road at a spanking pace but as she approached the shops near Carolside Avenue, her mood darkened again.

She’d hardly anything new to read. Even worse than that, next week was going to be so horrible!

A cold shudder passed through her, even colder than the seriously icy atmosphere around her.

‘We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar’  Christmas Day was supposed to be so nice: happy and cheerful, filled with lots of lovely new surprises to open but that wasn’t going to happen to her! She pretended that the sting at her eyes was just because the arctic chill was gluing her eyelashes together.

Though at eight going on nine years old, she knew better.

‘Oh, Star of wonder…’ It was only Friday, but she’d already devoured the two thinner ones of the three library books that she was allowed to borrow each Tuesday. The big fat Enid Blyton Ship of Adventure Series book she’d vowed to save for her Saturday reading. Those stories absorbed her for hours and sent her places she could only dream of. She wasn’t going to start it when she got home, she wasn’t! ‘I’m not. I’m not’ accompanied her till she passed the Newsagents shop close to her home on Rozelle Avenue. A sort-of-a-smile almost broke free when she saw the Christmas advert for her favourite comic in the window. The Bunty had produced a special Christmas edition that week with an extra story in it! That would mean an even longer time could be spent savouring her comics. She got The Bunty; The Judy; The June and School Friend, and The Diana every week.

She mostly hated her older sister- the four year gap meaning almost no reason to like her sibling who was now only interested in boys, especially the one who lived in a house opposite the Co-Operative Shop she’d just passed. Meggie had always been a tomboy so it was difficult to understand the girl who now went to bed every night with rollers in her hair that she claimed would create a perfect style in the morning. The problem with Moody Meggie was that her hair was totally straight and sleeping on uncomfortable jaggy rollers didn’t make a bit of difference. Meggie’s hair was still straight in the morning and didn’t do that curling under thing it was supposed to.

The best thing about Meggie was that her comics were still ordered even though she wasn’t really much of a reader. Being a tomboy meant that Meggie got The Beano; The Dandy; The Beezer; and The Topper. Mean Meggie pretended to read them all  and took till about Wednesday night before she’d pass them on to her but that was good because there was always something new to read on Thursday after school. 

‘Guide us to thy perfect light…’ As Wee Missy rounded the corner which led to her house on Jedworth Avenue, she thought about the comics for this week that were going to be such a treat to look forward to- the only drawback being that they wouldn’t be delivered by the ‘paper boy’ till after five o’clock that evening. Sometimes the package, rolled up tight in elastic bands, didn’t pop through the letter box till nearer half past five and when that happened it was a really ghastly wait.

What was she going to read till they were delivered? Guilt made her last steps even harder to take.

Wee Missy approached the short flight of stairs which led up to her block of flats and let out a deep sigh, sending a cloud of icy vapour around her. She wanted to be in her house and out of the biting cold, yet she could hardly bear it. Remorse sat even more heavily on her shoulder, a burden that she’d repressed for more than a week, but she’d been brought up to face up to consequences so she knew she just had to get on with it.

‘We wish you a Merry Christmas…’ Knocking on Mrs. Irvine’s door, she summoned a chapped lipped smile. Her neighbour across the landing was the keeper of her door key because there was no one in her own house when she got home after school. At eight and three quarter years old, she wasn’t regarded as being responsible enough for that job- it would have been a disaster if she lost one of the only two house keys that the family had.

“Hullo, hen. Was school good the day? Huv you seen oor Thomas?”

'Good tidings we bring...' Her neighbour’s questions always came thick and fast and Wee Missy’s answers rarely varied as she shook her head. Thomas was nearly the same age as she was but was in a different class at school. He was nearly always home later than she was because he mucked about with his mates on the way home - even on freezing cold days. Michael Irvine was a couple of years younger and was already home, eating biscuits and drinking milk like she’d just been offered by Mrs. Irvine.

“Here’s your key, love. If you need any help, remember to just chap.” Mrs. Irvine’s smile was always cheery as the key was handed over.

'To you and your kin...' It had only been two months since Wee Missy’s mother had started in her temporary seasonal job at the huge Woolworth’s Department store in the city centre of Glasgow. Her mum had never been anything except a housewife since her mother and father had got married, so the new job was taking a bit of getting used to. They were all out early to catch a bus - her mum, Dad and sister - well before she had to go to school. In the evening, her sister was supposed to be home before her dad at five- thirty but Meggie rarely was. It was nearly half past six before her mum returned. It wasn’t the loneliness that bothered Wee Missy when she unlocked the door and went in to her house. Being alone was great.

She loved lots of peace and quiet but that was what was now giving her guilty bad dreams!

‘We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…’ Her heart sank even further as she dumped her school satchel on the floor at the coat cupboard. She took off her almost solid frozen school blazer, the wool so matted with frost it looked white instead of black. She struggled to hang it up since her fingers had no blood at the tips. Her hat, scarf and gloves had fared little better and stood up in solid heaps when she dropped them, too.

Bypassing her parents’ bedroom was horrible since the door was wide open. She couldn’t miss seeing the huge wardrobe that filled the space alongside the window: that solid, dark wooden wardrobe with its generous shelf at the top.

What had made her do it? The house was as cold as her conscience.

The clock on the mantelpiece read twenty past four. That meant ages to wait for something new to read. Chores needed doing, but her hands were too cold. There wouldn’t be any hot water from the taps till the immersion heater was switched on but she was allowed to boil the electric kettle to make herself a cup of hot cocoa. Till the electric kettle boiled, she hugged her cold fingers under her oxters to warm them up. When the sound changed to that almost boiling splutter, she scooped out two spoons of drinking chocolate powder into her cup and added some milk. Once it was mixed to a paste she shakily added the boiling water and then stirred it furiously to mix it in. The rest of the kettle of hot water went into the basin in the sink. Some cold water added, she immersed her freezing fingers till they thawed out, yelping as the blood warmed through to her fingertips.

‘Oh, come all ye faithful…’ Able now to wrap her hands around her cup, she took it into her bedroom. Staring at her piles of already read books and comics brought forth none of her usual excitement but she had to read something, or do something else. She couldn’t just do nothing.

Straightening up the covers on her bed was easy but she wasn’t climbing up to the top bunk to do her sister’s. She’d given up on tidying her siblings mess ages ago. Slurping down the last of her cocoa, she felt she’d almost thawed out.

'Joyful and triumphant...' She wasn’t allowed to light the coal fires that were in the living room and bedrooms but she knew from the last few weeks that her lazy sister wasn’t going to be home in time to set them. Having dumped her cup in the water she’d used to warm her hands,  she washed the few other things from the morning – cereal bowls, a couple of cups and some cutlery. She wasn’t great at peeling potatoes but she knew it would help get the dinner ready more quickly if she got on with it.

And it would help to atone a little bit for her sad misdeeds of the previous week.

‘Peace on earth, Goodwill to men…’ One look was all it took for her to feel ill again. The kitchen was opposite her mum’s bedroom, and that wardrobe just wasn’t going to go away. Blocking out the sight of it with her hand she made her way into the living room.

Her dad always made sure to leave ready some kindling for the fire and the coal bucket was half full. She’d learned how to roll the newspaper into spills so she set to work. It took a while but by almost five o’clock, she had the fire set in the grate.

Wee Slavey in her Bunty comic was always setting the fires and doing the menial chores in the big manor house so it was a just enough punishment for her. How could she have been so stupid as to drag that chair over to the top shelf of her mum’s wardrobe?

She wished so much that she hadn’t overheard her mum telling her dad that she’d stashed away some things up on the shelf for the girls.

They didn’t have a cat but her curiosity now almost killed her.

The stash of unwrapped presents on the shelf included the Annual Editions of her favourite comics. They were meant to be opened on Christmas Day but she had devoured them the previous week- every single word. Even the last page which wasn’t a story but about the people who had helped make the books.

Now she had no new reading to look forward to! Tears dripped from her chin. She was so disappointed in herself for taking away the excitement of Christmas.

***
Sunday, 25th December, 1960

Weak daylight crept through the curtain. Wee Missy wanted to sleep all day long-even though it was Christmas Day. Pretending was going to be so horrible. She’d managed to keep her awful guilty secret during Christmas Eve but the day of reckoning had now arrived. 

In previous years, Santa Claus hadn’t brought all that much since her parents didn’t have the money for lots of gifts, but it had still been very exciting to investigate the contents of the white pillow case that had been left hanging at the end of her bed. There had usually been a new doll, maybe a few jig-saws, some chocolate, hard boiled sweets and some fruit- usually a tangerine, and if she was very lucky an exotic pomegranate. Of course, the most important contents of her Christmas pillow case had been the Annuals.

She could hear her mum in the kitchen making breakfast and her dad would be off soon for his Sunday walk- even though it was Christmas Day.

“Are you two awake?” her dad shouted as his knuckles rapped at the door. “Merry Christmas! Has Santa brought you anything this year? ”

Jumping out of bed she pretended to be excited as she opened the door to him. “I don’t know yet.” She’d learned the previous Christmas about the Santa and her parents’ secret but it was nice to keep up that pretence.

“Well hurry up then. See what’s in that big stuffed pillowcase.”

As Wee Missy delved into the bulging white sack her sister’s head hung down from the top bunk, the rollers falling out of her hair.

“Thanks Dad,” Meggie said as Dad passed up her pillow case.

Wee Missy’s dread turned to squeals of absolute delight as her fingers rummaged around. There were so many presents in her pillow case. She had a gorgeous new doll with the kind of nylon hair that could be combed. More new jig-saws that she loved to put together and plenty of chocolate and sweeties. The already read annuals were there….but there were also lots of brand new books as well!

Enid Blyton books and some of the Chalet School Series that she’d just started to read. How could her mother have afforded such a lot of presents?

Such a lot of books she didn’t deserve.

Tears dripping down her chin she hugged her dad really tight and then ran to her mum who’d just come into the room.

“Thank you. Thank you!”

Never, absolutely never, would she ever sneak a look at her presents before Christmas again. She’d learned a very salutary lesson. She had to be the luckiest girl in Glasgow.

Christmas was for surprises!









 ***

 (written December 2014)
The Xmas Surprise

Sunday 21st October, 2001, Frankfurt Hahn Airport.

Everywhere.

Fully armed security screamed at her tired eyes. At entrance doors they were expected but the rash on the floor of the huge concourse wasn’t. Airports always had security but rarely had Mrs. J been anywhere that had quite so many highly visible armed personnel. Green khaki was intermittently broken by uniforms in a dull brown and some even wore other paler hues. She couldn’t tell the difference between army, armed police and the more usual airport security guards. However, noting the fine nuances of clothing didn’t matter one whit - they all carried the kind of very large semi- automatic weapons that seemed to take two hands to bear the weight at the front. Of course, for all she knew about guns they could easily have been automatic ones. Terminology aside they intimidated, as intended.

The 4 a.m. coach from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof train station had just deposited her at Frankfurt Hahn’s International Departures where she and her younger daughter, Sheena, were checking in for their return flight to Prestwick, Scotland.

Making her way to the check-in desk, she reflected that the extra security was a necessary measure to ensure passenger safety, given the recent horrific events of 9/11, still too fresh to make flying comfortable. She was so glad that the heavy armed presence hadn’t been visible in Heidelberg: nothing like that had impinged on the fabulous holiday that they’d just had. The five full days spent in Heidleberg with her elder daughter, Fiona, had been just what was needed to recharge their batteries before she went back to her teaching job the following day and Sheena back to her course at Aberdeen University.

Check-in was efficient; though possibly a tad slower than during other holidays.

Breakfast was next since a full feed at 3 am hadn’t been appealing.

A couple of hours later, they were close to boarding. The flight was still delayed by some twenty minutes but in the grand scheme of things that wasn’t so bad. As she settled down beside Sheena on the bench seating, she surveyed the pre - boarding lounge. She’d had the experience of being in a lot of airports over the previous three decades and had noted that the accommodations varied tremendously. This one was a bit like being in a very bare goldfish bowl. Looking back towards the automatic door that she’d recently entered through, there were two armed security personnel stationed at both the inside and the outside. The fully glazed walls gave way to the view outside of other passengers walking towards their own boarding lounges. Silently, of course, since the sound insulation was amazingly good.

The fact that the swell of people in the goldfish bowl sat in almost total silence, all added to the other-worldly eeriness of the experience. Of course, everyone looked half asleep as she must also do.

On the opposite side of the room was another totally glazed wall with one regular manual open/shut door. Again, it was guarded by two armed female officers to the inside, weapons at the ready. Behind the glass walls was a narrow, completely silent and empty corridor. The far wall was of basic undecorated grey breeze blocks. Mrs. J idly reckoned it probably led straight to the access gangways for entering the aeroplanes. At least she hoped so because it might mean less of a walk to get on to the plane.

Alongside her, Sheena nudged against her shoulder, snuggled in to her neck and then closed her eyes.

The short week had been fabulous. A small smile was suppressed as Mrs. J thought about the touristy things they’d done with Fiona who was studying at Heidelberg University for that academic year. They’d packed a lot into the days, working around the times that Fiona spent in classes and tutorials, since she wasn’t on holiday.

Heidelberg was such a fabulous town to visit.

The shops in the old town were amazing. Moving from one to another was a joy and that was pretty astonishing because Mrs. J wasn’t normally a browser. Since her daughters had hit their early teens, she’d volunteered to wash windows, do the ironing, clean the oven, do almost anything, rather than shop with them. Wandering around and trying on just about everything before they eventually made up their minds bored Mrs. J something awful - but Heidelberg shopping was different.

Jewellery had twinkled from behind many windows. Clothing was draped artistically on inside racks of the small clothing boutiques, often with hanging rails at the doors for easy handling and inspection of the fabrics. There were specialist this and specialist that outlets. The shops were very individual and some of them were probably entirely unique. Mrs. J had found that it had been surprisingly good fun wandering around with two twenty-ish year olds and living it through their eyes.

The three of them had spent some time in the fancy liquor store- the D-I-Y sort of shop for specialist drinks. Resembling a winery, inside the shop you could choose everything that you personally wanted- the bottle shape, its size and its contents. Small gift options were possible for tourists aware of avoiding excess baggage weight. Attractively shaped bottles were filled from the vats and barrels set around the room in an almost festive display – even though it wasn’t a festival time in Heidelberg. The locals, according to Fiona, also used the shop to fill their much larger demijohns and litre sized containers with their favourite tipples. Most of the drink options had English translations below but when they didn’t it was just as well that Fiona could translate. Combinations of sloes, logan, cloud, juniper berries and many more were quite mind boggling: the images portrayed often looking exactly the same. Purple berries and even more juicily purple berries!

Naturally, a sampling of the products was a huge part of the experience.

And then…there had been that magical All Year Round Christmas Store.

Fiona had warned her when they stopped at the doorway. “This is the most amazing shop. You’ll never want to leave but we have to get to our table at the beer keller in an hour or it’ll be given to someone else, though if you don’t spend too long, you can have a quick look.”

It was magical. Every floor was stuffed with Christmas goodies - some seriously expensive and only for the most ardent collectors, but other items were affordable.

“What’s taking you so long?” Sheena was clearly desperate to get to Fiona’s favourite student beer haunt.

Mrs. J had laughed at her eagerness, and told her younger daughter she would be done paying very soon.

“Mum!” She felt Sheena’s head nudge her arm as she straightened up. “That’s your name they’re calling.”

Mrs. J had a tendency to tune out airport announcements because they were rarely clear enough to understand them.

“Me? Why me?” She was jolted out of her reverie.

Sheena urged her up and towed her over to the gate check-in assistant. “I don’t know but they don’t sound happy.”

At the desk, the airline assistant was calling her name a second time and sounding very stern about it.

“You are Mrs. J?”

By then the two armed officers who were at the long corridor door had also approached.

By the time she confirmed she was the person they were calling for, a high degree of panic had set in.

“You will come with us!”

The weapon was twitching and the officers were not at all happy, one of them burbling into the microphone attached to her uniform.

As she was bundled into the corridor with Sheena, via the manually opened door, two more armed personnel approached down the corridor, her case in the grip of one of them.

The case was laid on the floor of the corridor.

“Open it!” One of the female officers demanded.

Another said, “Slowly.”

In a complete tizzy, Mrs. J looked at Sheena. “Is it my hairdryer? Should I have put it in my hand luggage?” Utterly inane things were jumping out at her because she had no idea why this was happening.

Gritted teeth whispered back . Sheena was the practical, pragmatic one of the family. “Mum, it’s not your stupid hairdryer. Just open the bloody thing.”

The key trembling in her hand Mrs. J opened the suitcase, mortified because she knew what was on the top layer. The smelliest items would be first in the washing machine when she got home.

“Remove them. Show what is beneath. ” The officer’s English was good enough to get her point over… and the only other good thing about the affair was that it wasn’t a male officer seeing the dirty knickers.

Hastily Mrs. J shoved the top layer onto the opened lid of the suitcase, gradually revealing a white plastic bag. As she peeled off more items, the logo of the bag became more visible.

What seemed to be guttural German passed between the four officers.

“Open the bag.”

As requested Mrs. J opened the bag and took out a myriad of tiny parcels. The grunts of frustration around her were unmistakable.

“You will remove the paper!”

There was never a please nor a thank you, only grim expressions which were becoming more annoyed as the seconds passed. After about the twentieth small package had the tissue paper removed from it, one of the officers barked at the others. Her gun twitched that everything should be put back into the case.

More burbling into microphones.

Little more was said. The case was filled and locked again. It was lifted by the one who had delivered it. Using mute signals only, Mrs. J and Sheena were escorted back into the now emptying goldfish bowl.

It goes without saying that they were last onto the plane.

On the last day of the school term before the Christmas break, Mrs. J’s Primary Seven class of almost 12 year olds had the usual party in their classroom in the afternoon. Her normal practice was to have the clear up done and dusted around fifteen minutes before the bell, that small time slot just enough to give out her Christmas gifts to her pupils. It was her habit to wrap and label each parcel with the recipients name on it and present it individually. That year was a little different.

She ensured she had a few extra minutes.

“You’ll maybe have heard from previous Primary Sevens that I try to give you all something hand-picked by me as a Christmas keepsake?” 

She went on to relate to them that their Christmas gift was so unique it came with a story as well.

Inside each parcel was a specially chosen tree ornament. Trains, Santas, cars, sleighs, baubles, trees, animals…

Each one had been bought with care and kept with care. Each one had had new tissue paper wrapped around it since the original had been shredded in a Frankfurt Hahn airport corridor.

Her last words to the pupils before they left were to the tune of…Have a happy holiday and if you should be flying anywhere during the two week break, make sure that you have zero metal in your hold baggage.

Those tiny tree decorations were mostly made of wood but a few weren’t quite. Some were of the thinnest metal and some had the tiniest pins holding wheels together.

Airport security was so efficient that the 35 tiny ornaments had triggered the metal detectors.

A red face it had been, but a salutary one.

p.s. I hope that some of those ornaments might have been treasured because that was the general intention.

Mrs. J had 33 pupils that year. Here are the other two ornaments which go onto her Christmas tree every year - just to remind her that sometimes a red face isn’t so bad after all.


 ***


Topaz Eyes - An ancestral mystery
from Chapter One





Keira Drummond had found the bizarre request to return to Heidelberg, Germany, impossible to resist. After almost six years, little had changed on the street named Steingasse as she sat looking down towards the Brukentor – the towers of the old bridge spanning the River Neckar with their distinctive helmeted tops.
            Still tremendously busy, Steingasse was too narrow for the clutches of tables adorning both sides. Even in the middle of the street it was difficult to see the cobbles, the pedestrian traffic a constant procession undulating along its length, since it was one of Heidelberg’s most popular tourist areas.
            Sipping her coffee, she now had great reservations over accepting the strange summons and couldn’t fathom the compulsion she’d felt to comply, because caution normally imprinted itself on her forehead. Now she was in Heidelberg, the circumstances surrounding the request were even more nebulous, and so shrouded in secrecy. Apprehension that there was something underhand about it sat heavy in her stomach. She’d yet to meet her host, and presently wasn’t convinced she wanted to.
            “Frei, or besetzt?”
            The abrupt question, in halting German, startled a smile from her. Free, or occupied, the tall man beside her was asking? A curve to her lips lingered as he stared, his focus intent. Dull flutters skittered inside her. Something about the man tripped a little switch, yet glued her mouth. Shut. The words free, and occupied, adopted whole new hues.
            Her nod was infinitesimal.
            Sharing tables in places like this was the norm; in fact, the waiting staff positively encouraged it, liking their tables groaning with potential tips. She already shared with a Norwegian couple who’d been happy for her to take the third seat at the table: the only table in the vicinity with spares. It would be downright mean of her to deny this man the fourth.
            Danke.
            His thank you nod encompassed all of them as he glided a small package and an envelope onto the tabletop, before shrugging out of his dark grey jacket.   
            With no conscious intention of being nosey, it was difficult for Keira to ignore someone who dominated her airspace as he shuffled around in the impossibly tiny gap. She contemplated the swallowing of his throat when his glance alighted on her, and then halted. Interest flared, a widening of his grey eyes accompanied a hint of a smile, just crinkling the corners of his mouth. Blinking a few times, she considered looking away but found she couldn’t. It wasn’t impossible, she just didn’t want to, and it seemed neither did he.
            Without breaking eye contact, he fumbled the jacket over the back of the wrought-iron chair and then squeezed in as best he could, a tighter smile coming her way.
            Irritability, or perhaps frustration, draped over him as much as his business clothing, the slight pull at his brows not something she could miss. Before tugging her gaze away, she returned his smile. She doubted it was the lack of privacy on the street which bothered the guy, or he’d have moved on to a quieter place. 
            Alongside her, his fingers idled then tapped on the table edge as he surveyed the area, his head lifting to appreciate the architecture, much as she had done a few moments earlier. Taking stock over his shoulder, by bowing his torso to an uncomfortable angle, he was also able to view the towers, but before Keira could catch it his envelope slipped off the table edge, dislodged by his extended fingers. Bending to grasp it at the same time as he did, she barely avoided a brow collision. Sheer male and a hint of some kind of herb, assailed her nostrils. She savoured it before they both moved; his now smiling mouth within centimetres of hers.
            Danke.”
            Deep and throaty, the single word of thanks rippled towards her. She answered in English as she held out the envelope. “No problem. Here you go.”
            “You’re English?”
            “Scottish. And you’re American?”
            The man laughed, his teeth bright against the tan of his skin. “I am, though how could you tell my German was non-native?”
            One moment of shared amusement was enough. Sitting back in her chair, as he did, they began a casual conversation. Mischief lurked behind her answer. “Mmm. Let’s see which might offend the least. Hesitation? The wrong ‘a’ sound maybe? Or perhaps it’s just the fact almost everyone around here isn’t a German native, including most of the wait staff.”
            The raising of his brows stoked a nice little fire. “How can you possibly make such a judgment?”
            “I worked at a wine bar, only a couple of streets away, for the best part of eight months, right here in the heart of Heidelberg’s tourist areas. Though, it was almost six years ago.”
            Something about his steel drum gaze, the twinkle perhaps, indicated she’d impressed him.           
            “No restaurants to wait tables on in Scotland?”
            “Oh, sure. I waited on plenty of tables there, too. I attended the university here in Heidelberg, as part of my languages course and, in the nature of things, had to finance my way. But don’t get me wrong. A job like that was the best way to improve my fluency.”
            “Yeah, but how did you manage if most people around were non-German?”
            “Did I forget to say my boss was German?” Memories of the slave driver he’d been brought forth another smirk. “I absorbed a dictionary worth of very nice words from him, I can tell you. And not the German I learned during seminars along at the university.”
            A slight pause descended, the waiter having arrived at the table. Keira studied the man when his attention moved to their server. His thick hair was mid-brown, short, yet not so cropped she’d be unable to slide her fingers through. A nice idea, but she’d no time for dalliance so why did these errant imaginings even enter her head? Still, she couldn’t help notice the polite smile he flashed at the waiter before glancing at her half-full coffee cup. His pointing finger, and questioning glance, she took to mean did she want another: her simple headshake all he needed before he placed his beer order in halting German. Economical with words he, nonetheless, seemed a generous person.
             Assessing the character of strangers was a favourite pastime, and it always pleased when her judgment was spot on.
            “Are you impressed? I just ordered me a beer.”
            “I’m guessing your German’s limited?”
            “How much can anyone learn in transit from London?” Dark laughter rippled down her nerve endings, though there was an abashment that didn’t seem to match, because the man oozed masculinity. He flashed a small phrase book taken from his back pocket.
            “My German is worse than non-existent, and doubly embarrassing since my father was of Dutch descent. Not the same as German, I know, but I believe some of their words are quite similar. ” 
            Her laugh rang along with his, since it was so easy to join the bandwagon of his mirth. “No lessons in Dutch at your grandma’s knee?”
            “Not a word. The only thing I’ve got that’s Dutch is my name.”
         
I hope you enjoyed this bit of my mystery within a mystery! Thank you for reading...

The following are from my Celtic Fervour Series of historical romantic adventures


Chapter One - Book 1 
The Beltane Choice 
(Roman Britain)

AD 71, Selgovae territory - Cheviot Hills
Nettle-sharp tears of frustration reduced Nara’s vision as she pressed her hand under her ribs to dull the pain, and ploughed her way through the pitted undergrowth. Wrenching aside jagged gorse bushes dotted with yellow blossoms, the thorns scraped blood-red lines on her arms.
“You have my spear and my sword, but you will not have my life.”
Gruelling breaths were snatched between curses. A glance over her shoulder caught the beast smashing on behind, scattering leaves and pinging twigs and branches. The folds of its hairy flesh quivered, its trotters pounding the earth, thudding minor tremors.
She scanned around for refuge. In the past, she had felled a boar, though never such a hefty beast, and this one exuded such vigour it would pursue her till she dropped if she could not climb out of its reach. The slight birch up ahead must suffice since the trees in the bush-strewn thicket were limited; all thin limbed.
At the bole of the slender tree she wheeled round, a glint behind the bobbing animal snaring her attention. Her spear lay there on the ground, torn out of the boar’s hide in its relentless drive through the spiny broom. Only paces away, yet how to reach it? The trickle of blood seeping from the animal’s wound made her cringe, her short sword still embedded in the beast’s flank. She had no hope of using that blade a second time, and fingering the hilt of the small knife tucked in her waist pouch was futile. Though sharp enough, it was useless against the tough flesh of the beast lumbering closer.
“Your tusks will not be my future.” Her hiss was stubborn. She may have been expunged from the nemeton, the island home of the priestesses where she’d lived for many years, and now discarded like a broken loom, but there was still a life for her.
“Nara of Tarras entreats you, Rhianna. I put myself in your hands.”
Startled by her outburst, the boar skittered to a halt, giving her time to use the flat of her foot. A mighty leap made, she grabbed the lowest branch, her legs swinging upwards as the frenzied boar thudded against the bark. Knees encircling the bough, she edged her way along to the trunk, her juddering thigh muscles clamping around it. Climbing higher, she selected the strongest join of bole and branch where she rested astride, hugging it tight. Exultant relief followed, her heartbeats ceased their frantic pump, and her breathing settled despite the boar continuing to hurtle its mass against the base.
“Sweet goddess, Rhianna, I thank you.” Her words whiffed against bark. Safety was not assured but her bodyguard, Cearnach, would no doubt come to her aid before the animal uprooted the tree.
A smirk broke free in spite of her predicament. Life had changed drastically these last two moons, but the changes did not all have to be bad.
Maybe a handsome stranger will rescue me from this fearsome creature of the forest? Her grin widened. It was due time something exciting happened.
“Cearnach? Where are you?”
Impatience mounted, the pummelling below continued, her repeated cry ringing out over the copse while the beast yowled and squealed, its energy infinite. Small disturbed creatures scurried off, the fluttering and cheeping bird cry alerting the forest floor to danger.
“Woman! Be ready.”
The rumbling holler came so suddenly Nara almost lost her grip on the trunk. It was not Cearnach; the tone was deeper, gruff and…disturbing. A search of the dense bush cover revealed no-one, yet a toying laugh reached her ears, its owner amused by her failure to spot him.
“Reveal yourself!” Nara’s request echoed around the shadowy thicket. Below her the boar scratched and pawed the ground in frustration, circling around, alerted to the new presence but uncertain of which way to charge.
“Woman, heed me. I will help you kill this beast since it will take more than one weapon, now you have raised its hackles, but you know that already from your bungling attempt.”
The implacable voice made Nara flinch in embarrassment, the burst of acerbic laughter that followed hurtful to her pride. Angry to be scorned in such a way, her resentment burned deep, yet the truth was his words were justifiable since she had been a poor huntress.
“I will distract it to reach your spear, but assure me only the boar will receive its death throw.”
“And if I do not pledge?” Nara’s words challenged, wondering why he set such terms.
The boar squealed, and the rumbling laugh rippled around. “You will be left with this creature, already livid enough to batter that immature tree down in a few more charges. Could you not have picked a stronger one?”
Indignation spewed from Nara. This was a greater insult than his chastisements. “Did I have a choice?”
“There is always a choice.”

Chapter One - Book 3
After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks
(Far North of Britain Inferior/ Roman Britain)



AD 74 Beltane – Garrigill, Brigantes Territory
“Who are you?” The warrior’s eyes lit up in shock, even a little fear, as he took in the sight of the man who approached the tall wooden gates of the hillfort at Garrigill.
            “The man you think I am, and yet not that same man. Though I am not a dead warrior either.” Brennus could not have wished for a better guard to be at the entrance to his old home.
            “We thought you gone from us after the battles at Whorl. Grond was sure you must be dead.”
            “I know you all must think that, but I lived in spite of my injuries.”
            Relief spread when his old friend began to smile, acceptance creeping across his familiar features. He grinned at the hearty laugh which bellowed into his ear, Dairmid’s clasp across the shoulders the warmest greeting he had had for many a day.
            “The face may be different, but the voice is unchanged!” Dairmid’s inspection was acute as he continued to slap his palms lightly at Brennus’ upper arms in cheery fashion, still amazed by his arrival.
            “Brennus I am, but not quite the same person you used to call friend. I am also now named Bran of Witton.”
            “Welcome then, Brennus or Bran. There is surely a story to hear about that. We have long missed your drawn out tales ringing out around our hearthsides!”
            Dairmid stood back and took stock of him. His old friend’s keen gaze at his ravaged face no longer bothered him. He appreciated Dairmid’s next words as much as the genuine welcome in the man’s grin.
            “What’s a scar or two to a Celtic warrior? We all have them somewhere. But come and tell your brother, the chief of Garrigill, where you have been. Your arrival will be such a surprise to Lorcan.”
            He was certain it would be an immense shock, though he hoped a pleasant one. A long time had passed since he had seen his brother wend his way to the Brigante Tribes dealings with Cerialis, the Roman Governor of Britannia.
            “Garrigill is quiet, Dairmid.” He deliberately kept any censure from his tone but from what he had seen on the approach to the huge hillfort of Garrigill there was a poor guard force at its gates.
            “Quiet?” His old friend paused before he latched on to the meaning. “We have a large area to patrol and few able warriors to do it.”
            Having come up through the series of defence ditches that surrounded the settlement, Brennus assessed in his usual fashion, his gaze a swift move to both right and left. People ambled around, but not in the numbers he would have seen before he left for the battle at Whorl.
            “We have even fewer able warriors now, Bre…Bran. Whoever you wish to be named! The defeat at Stanwick left us with many dead, male and female.”
            “My brothers, Locan and Gabrond?”
            “Both still live. Gabrond fretted as any warrior would but he never recovered enough after Whorl to go to battle with King Venutius. He remained in charge here at Garrigill, though Lorcan will tell you all. You have much to catch up on.”
            They reached what had been his father Tully’s roundhouse but was now the hearth of his brother.
            “Lorcan?”
            Dairmid’s call brought a small child running out through the entryway of the roundhouse: a little boy who stopped short at Brennus’ feet and then tumbled over in a heap alongside.
            “Slowly, little one. Learn to walk properly before you run.” He picked the child up in his arms, certain he knew who the child belonged to. The eyes and facial features were exactly like his brother Lorcan, the hair a slightly lighter bronze than what he remembered of Nara. The little one had to be his nephew.
            “Beathan!”
            Nara’s cry came as she flew out the entrance tunnel after the bairn. Brennus watched her stop short at the sight before her. Her stare went from sheer astonishment, to doubt and on to utter delight as he felt her blue eyes slide from the top of his head right down to his feet. Only after the tiniest hesitation did she rush forward, almost knocking him to his knees, her hug encompassing her squirming son.
            “Brennus! You are alive! I am overwhelmed. Where have you been?”
            He watched his brother exit the roundhouse in pursuit of the commotion, the movements slow and steady. That was not like the Lorcan of old. Since the last time Brennus had set eyes on his brother he had not fared so well in the battles at Stanwick; those battles where King Venutius of the Brigantes had fallen under the might of the Roman Empire. An ugly gash marred Lorcan’s brow, and his gait was stiff and awkward.
            “By Taranis! Can this be? My little brother!”
            Lorcan’s stare was even more incredulous than Nara’s had been. He only hoped the happiness he was reading in his brother’s expression truly was so.
            “Aye! I still live.”
            *****

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